The next time you are on a Microsoft Teams call or write a group email that includes a female colleague, consider this: The next time you pick up the phone to contact her, she might be gone. According to the Women in the Workplace 2020 study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, one in four women are considering leaving their workplaces or downshifting their careers due to work-life challenges stemming from COVID-19, leading to the potential loss of two million women from the American workforce. What is making work so untenable for many women?
First, consider the overall U.S. workforce, across all sectors: The industries hardest hit by the pandemic are those dominated by women and people of color: healthcare, retail and hospitality, notably restaurants. These two demographics have been losing their jobs in staggering numbers. In December 2020 alone, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 100% of the 156,000 jobs lost that month in the U.S. Second, the double whammy of the closure of daycares and the shift to remote schooling saddled mothers with overwhelming responsibilities.
In the tech industry, women faced significant challenges before COVID-19 hit. Although women represent about 47% of entry-level workers in tech, that number dwindles to 20% in C-Suite jobs, with women of color accounting for just 2% of these executive roles. This leads to the challenges of being an “Only” – the only woman or person of color in a team, department or meeting. “Onlys” experience isolation, disengagement and pressure to out-perform male, white colleagues simply to be seen as equals. Women report feeling more exhausted, burned out and excluded than their male colleagues.
Layer on the pressures of a pandemic and you’ve got a seriously overstressed female workforce at the breaking point. Fathers and partners are not taking on a fair share of the burden. Fully 40% of working mothers are spending 15+ more hours weekly on household duties than they did prior to the COVID-19 crisis and are more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance at work is being negatively judged because of their caregiving responsibilities. And a survey by Chief, a private club for women executives, reports that, irrespective of added responsibilities at home, 70% of women report that they have taken on more duties at work since the COVID-19 crisis began. So, on top of the anxieties around keeping themselves and their families healthy during a worldwide pandemic, women are simultaneously working more, and doing more at home.
Women are critically important in workplaces for a host of reasons. Women in senior-level roles have a profound effect on workplace culture. According to the McKinsey study, women are more likely to embrace and champion employee-friendly policies and programs and to take a stand for gender and racial equity at work. Women also mentor and sponsor other women more than men. If senior-level women leave the workforce, women at all levels will lose their strongest allies. Research also shows that gender-diverse teams – and companies – are more innovative, creative and productive. Inclusive workplaces tend to have higher retention rates and better recruitment rates. To sum up, companies where women are well-represented in leadership are 50% more likely to outperform their peers.
As indicated by McKinsey, companies are at a critical crossroads. The choices managers, teams and companies make now will influence the workplace for decades to come. The authors of the study say it best: “If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent the way they work so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone. If not, the consequences could badly hurt women, business and the economy as a whole. This moment requires long-term thinking, creativity, strong leadership and a laser focus on the value of women to their organizations.”
What can managers, teams and companies do? Women in the Workplace 2020 features an excellent Framework for Action, which includes everything from making work more sustainable, to minimizing gender biases, to strengthening employee communications. It is an important resource for any individual, team or company that wants to strengthen their support and retention of women. And – small steps can make a big difference. McKinsey encourages companies to ask a few important questions:
- Consider the workflow of your team: Is it flexible in a way that supports working parents and care-givers?
- Are performance expectations equitable across genders?
- Do the women on your team feel as though they can express difficulties or take PTO if they need to in order to take care of family obligations?
Finally, simply acknowledging the realities women are facing is a great first step. For instance, if there are women on your team, you could forward them this article and say, “I didn’t realize how significant this issue was. If there are ways I can further help you navigate this time, please feel free to talk with me about it.”
None of us want to find out what happens to our companies if we lose 25% of our female colleagues. We have the opportunity and obligation to reverse this troubling trend, if we act deliberately and intentionally to support the women around us. I invite you to dig into the Women in the Workplace 2020 study, to discuss it with your colleagues, and to determine how all of us can make our workplaces more supportive and inclusive for everyone, for the benefit of female workers and their employers everywhere.
We encourage your company to participate in McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace study and make your voice heard. To enroll, visit Women in the Workplace.
For information about the SEMI Foundation’s work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or if your team would like to support the industry in creating a more equitable workplace, please visit us at www.semifoundation.org, or contact Michelle at email@example.com.
Michelle Williams-Vaden is deputy director of the SEMI Foundation.